On March 16 President Emmanuel Macron, the youngest head of state in French history since Napoleon, appeared on prime-time television to address the nation. He declared a state of national emergency and said, six times, that France was “at war” against the coronavirus. Beginning at noon the following day, people could leave their homes only for urgent needs—to buy food, for medical appointments, to go to work if they couldn’t work remotely—and only with a permission slip. Just days before, France had closed its schools, restaurants, and cafés. Its external borders and the borders of the other twenty-five countries in Europe’s Schengen Zone of visa-free travel also snapped shut. Flights between Paris and the United States dropped to barely more than one a day. For eight weeks, the streets of Paris were empty of traffic and silent, the sidewalks desolate, all but essential food stores closed. Beneath the damaged, scaffold-clad hull of Notre-Dame, the waters of the Seine were calm and free of barges, a green lake.
When the lockdown—le confinement—finally began to lift on May 11, giving way to a tenuous period of reopening—le déconfinement—Paris looked the same. And yet it wasn’t. Over the course of that long, strange April—during which France recorded nearly 20,000 Covid-19 deaths—something had shifted. The coronavirus has caused a reckoning here, one of the most profound the country has undergone since World War II. It was already in the throes of upheaval when the virus hit, after the Yellow Vest street protests and strikes against Macron’s efforts to cut back state services and restructure pensions. The situation in France today is born of a combustive collision between theory and practice, ideal and real, that stems largely from the country’s persistent sense of itself as an exemplary nation, which may or may not withstand the test of reality.
France has emerged from the first wave of the pandemic with its self-confidence deeply rattled, its GDP projected to drop more than 10 percent this year, unemployment hovering around 10 percent, and brewing economic, political, and social crises that have even called into question the republic’s founding principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. All this leaves Macron, the golden boy, consistently slipping in polls, despite having no significant political opposition, and despite the fact that France handled the pandemic extremely competently, certainly compared to some other G7 countries. His strength—the verticality and centrality of authority in France, where the presidency is all-powerful—has become his greatest…
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